(photo credit: AP)
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is "very ill," and thus elections being held in Iran on Friday to choose a new "Assembly of Experts" - the forum that will in turn select Khamenei's successor - are immensely important, Uri Lubrani, an adviser to the minister of defense and former Israeli ambassador to the Shah's Iran, said on Wednesday.
Lubrani told The Jerusalem Post that Khamenei, 67, only the second supreme leader after Ayatollah Khomeini, is suffering from cancer and other ailments and would soon disappear from the scene.
He added that it was "not impossible" that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's spiritual mentor, Ayatollah Mohammad Mesbah-Yazdi, would emerge from Friday's vote as the dominant figure in the Assembly of Experts, and thus in prime position to either succeed Khamenei himself or appoint a successor. But Lubrani stressed dryly that "there are no Gallup polls" or reliable information on which to base any election predictions.
Iranians are voting Friday in both municipal elections and for the Assembly of Experts. Israel Radio's Menashe Amir, who has been broadcasting to Iran for 47 years, noted that a selection panel, the "Guardians of the Constitution," had rejected hundreds of would-be candidates for the 86-member assembly; 163 candidates are standing. Among those reportedly rejected was Mesbah-Yazdi's son.
Amir said half the members of this pre-selection panel were religious leaders loyal to Khamenei and the other were jurists who also had to be approved by the ruling leadership, and thus there was no prospect whatsoever of dissident figures winning seats in the assembly.
The notion that there was any profound distinction between the perceived extremists such as Mesbah-Yazdi and the relative moderates such as former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is also seeking to become the chairman of the assembly, was baseless, Amir said.
Lubrani also stressed that "all the candidates are from the regime."
Nonetheless, both men noted that a successful outcome for Mesbah-Yazdi and his camp would bolster Ahmadinejad's standing and his confidence, even as Iran defies international pressure to halt its drive to a nuclear capability.
"It would be a psychological victory for Ahmadinejad," said Amir, and would set the stage for possible further radicalization. Amir added that he was not convinced that Khamenei was as sick as has been suggested.
Lubrani, acknowledging that he was seeking crumbs of comfort, said "if Mesbah-Yazdi wins, I try to tell myself it could be a case of 'the worse it gets the better it is'" - in that such success for a known extremist might help galvanize the international community into action against Iran.
"It would also be a blow to freedom seekers in Iran," he added. They would know that they faced further limitations, and thus might, too, be moved to try and confront the regime.
Lubrani has said in the past that the best way to grapple with the threat posed by Iran would be for the United States and the international community to encourage internal dissent, which he has argued has real potential to oust the ayatollahs.
Amir on Wednesday echoed this argument. "If the US acts smartly, it can be done," he said. "Iran is not Iraq, and what is needed is not an invasion but financial and political support" for the Iranian people to oust a regime which he said was "going for broke in every direction."
He added, however, that his sense was that the Bush Administration is unpersuaded of the wisdom of this route.